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Faculty Question SUNY-Buffalo About Fracking Institute

Hydraulic Fracturing
In fracking, millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to break shale rock and free trapped gas. While shale gas has lowered energy prices, created jobs, and enhanced national security, fracking has been blamed for groundwater contamination. Photo: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg

State University of New York at Buffalo faculty are seeking more information on industry ties to an institute created to study fracking for natural gas.

A group of 83 professors and staff have requested documents on the founding and funding of the school’s Shale Resources and Society Institute, according to an Aug. 23 “open letter” to the university administration in the UB Reporter, an online faculty newspaper.

The institute released a report in May that didn’t acknowledge “long-term” ties by its authors to the gas industry while it seeks more than $1 million in corporate funding, Bloomberg News reported on July 23.

A U.S. boom in natural gas production from a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has raised concerns that ties between industry and academic research may compromise scholars’ independence, Bloomberg reported. Other universities have responded to similar concerns.

“A number of questions have been raised about whether the institute was really intended to provide independent academic inquiry,” according to the faculty members’ letter. “Only complete transparency can dispel the shadow now cast over UB.”

University spokesman John Della Contrada did not return a phone call or e-mail seeking comment on the faculty action.

In fracking, millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are forced underground to break shale rock and free trapped gas. While shale gas production has lowered energy prices, created jobs, and enhanced national security, fracking has been blamed for groundwater contamination.

Institute’s Report

Regulators in New York have banned fracking while environmental rules are drafted. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is considering a plan that would allow fracking in five counties near the Pennsylvania border.

In April, the newly formed Shale Resources and Society Institute issued a report that found drillers in Pennsylvania had reduced by half the rate of blowouts, spills and water contamination since 2008. Potential environmental problems could be “entirely avoided or mitigated” under New York’s proposed rules, according to the shale institute’s report.

The Public Accountability Initiative, a Buffalo nonprofit that focuses on corruption in business and government, said the report contained errors and didn’t acknowledge “extensive ties” by its authors to the gas industry.

Last month, the University of Texas at Austin announced it would convene a group of independent experts to review its February study on gas fracking after reports that the professor who led the study is on the board of a gas drilling company.

Texas Panel

Charles Groat, associate director of the university’s Energy Institute and former Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, proposed the study, selected the researchers, edited its summary and presented it to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 16.

Groat also sits on the board of Plains Exploration & Production Co., a relationship he didn’t disclose in the report or to his boss. Company filings show that in 2011 he received more than $400,000 in compensation from the Houston-based company, which has fracking operations in Texas.

The university announced Aug. 14 that Norman Augustine, former chief executive officer of defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., will lead the panel. Augustine is also a former board member at the oil and gas producer ConocoPhillips.

Industry Ties

Kevin Connor, president of the Public Accountability Initiative, said Augustine’s ties to the oil industry raise questions about the panel’s independence. Augustine over almost 20 years received “millions of dollars” in stock and compensation from ConocoPhillips, according to Connor.

“It is extremely troubling that the university chose an energy industry insider to chair the panel,” Connor said in a statement.

Steven Leslie, the university’s executive vice president and provost, said one of the reasons that he wanted Augustine “to take the lead of this committee is because of his longstanding board relationship with Conoco.”

“Because we want the truth, we wanted to have this panel led by someone who knew all of the elements in detail and who had credentials and reputation that were impeccable,” Leslie said in an interview.

Augustine is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The panel’s other members are James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, and Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation.

Pennsylvania State University now requires faculty research to be submitted to university officials before it is published, according to Michael Arthur, co-director of the school’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. A 2009 report on the economic impact of gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s portion of the Marcellus shale was released without disclosing industry funding.

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